Is the academy system flawed? According to the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Rafael Benitez and Trevor Brooking it is, but Sunderland Academy manager Ged McNamee is a firm advocate. Chief Football Writer Paul Fraser spoke to the man behind Sunderland's next generation

HAVING taken a morning session at the Academy of Light, Ged McNamee relaxes in the media suite while the rising talents of Sunderland Football Club enjoy a break for lunch.

Sitting comfortably in club colours, while the latest R&B tunes bellow out from the games room across the corridor, Sunderland's academy manager has less than an hour to discuss a debate on the national game that has brought comment from Sir Alex Ferguson, Rafael Benitez and many more.

Everyone, it would seem, has an opinion on why England's chances of qualifying for next summer's European Championships hinges largely on the result of Russia and Israel later this month. Fewer, though, have a solution.

On the back of England's defeat to Russia last month, most of the blame has been apportioned to Steve McClaren.

However, despite the former Middlesbrough manager's culpability, the whole academy system has been scrutinised.

Both Benitez and Ferguson have been responsible for suggesting the entire youth development in English football is no longer working. The numbers support pessimism.

The bare facts illustrate that in the first season of the Premier League, 15 years ago, 76 per cent of starting players were English.

That has dropped by more than half, to less than 40 per cent, which has set alarm bells ringing.

In the wake of the 2-1 defeat in Moscow last month, Sir Trevor Brooking, the Football Association's director of football, pointed the finger of blame at that very statistic, claiming the England team was under threat. Sir Bobby Charlton has since backed him up.

But those responsible for nurturing young talent on a professional level are less concerned. Of course they would prefer to see more local products make the first-team, but there is a feeling that those good enough will progress.

At Sunderland, over the last nine years a smattering of players have emerged on to the first-team scene. There is also a genuine hope that a few of them will graduate from the current batch.

McNamee clearly feels strongly about the criticism hurled towards the academy structure from the game's illustrious names, although he identifies a couple of examples to highlight that things are being done correctly.

"In the time the academies have been running, and people will say he would say that', some very good players have come through the system," said McNamee. "Last summer, the England Under-21s got to the semi-finals of the European Championships and the Under- 17s reached the quarter-finals of the world tournament. All of those players came through the system. There can't be too much wrong.

"It's an easy get out to say we have not got good enough players coming through. There has been a review of the academy system and there have been points brought up and maybe there is too much emphasis on winning games, rather than working with the ball.

"If you went to Holland the principle is passing and building from the back. Traditionally we are getting the ball forward bang, bang, bang. That's been the British game. We might have to look at it differently and educate the tots' coaches."

Ferguson's biggest beef is the ruling which prevents Manchester United from bringing in talented under-16s from any further than an hour and a half away.

The regulation, imposed by the Football Association, also has its flaws for clubs like Sunderland, who are competing outside of the top four clubs in the Premier League.

But that is not something McNamee would change. "I'm quite relaxed about it," he said.

"If there is a good player playing for us, the top clubs will soon know about him.

"If a Man. United comes knocking, the boy will get to know that. All it means for us is that within an hour and a half criteria we have access to the boys from an early age and we can build a rapport with them."

The average cost of a Premier League academy is £2m-a-year and such a financial outlay demands success on the playing field. But there is also another aspect which football fans would not normally consider.

Given how children from as young as eight can spend years at the clubs who discovered them, there is also a responsibility on the academies' part to help develop the characters of those under their guidance.

"Academies do well in this fragmented society, in a culture that is increasingly about guns or whatever," said McNamee, whose methods are a far cry from the days when he would head into Hartlepool town centre for a chip butty or cheese sarnie' after training with Hartlepool in the early 80s.

"You develop footballers but individuals as well.

"You have players from a young age and you try to mirror the technical side with hard work.

"It's a massive commitment for the parents and the boys.

When we are signing a boy we do stress that but we want to make it an enjoyable commitment.

Parents these days are scared to death of allowing their kids out.

It's a case of don't go there or there. They are not playing football like other generations.

"There is a knives culture developing in society and there is an edge out there. You have to be aware of that. There are pitfalls and we have to make sure we guide these players."

Within the Academy of Light, McNamee and his coaching team have a dossier compiled on each player.

It is not unusual. Most clubs have taken a similar route, as it helps to be able to build up a perception of the way the child has developed.

Middlesbrough's Academy set-up has been lavished with praise in recent years for the way Dave Parnaby has produced a number of players who have made the step up from youth team level to the Premier League.

At Sunderland and Newcastle, however, there have not been so many. Former Newcastle manager Glenn Roeder once said that clubs unearth top academy products in cycles.

And McNamee, knowing how the under-18s contested the Premier League play-off final in May, is optimistic Sunderland have a crop of young men with the potential to make a name for themselves at the club.

George McCartney, Kevin Kyle and Ben Alnwick have all been graduates of the Sunderland Academy in the past, while Grant Leadbitter is the only current member of Roy Keane's team to have started out there.

"Since the academy was introduced there has been only one season when we did not have a first-team debutant," said McNamee, who only took over the job in 2004 when Dutchman Kees Zwamborn departed.

"They have all moved on. They have to move on and we can only get them to that level and hopefully we will get money for them.

"The development process is made worthwhile if we can get money back for them.

"Middlesbrough had a period where they had plenty coming through but they have huge numbers who have moved on.

They are the benchmark but I reckon Dave Parnaby would say we are breathing down their neck now."

Now McNamee and his team, including assistant Kevin Ball and recruitment officer Gavin Oliver, are optimistic Leadbitter will be the first of many to save Keane and chairman Niall Quinn some of the club's transfer cash in the next few years.

"Ultimately we want to say to Roy that we have him, him and him, so you don't have to spend X amount," said McNamee.

"Grant is a great role model and one of the few who was here from the age of eight.

"The thing I would say to the lads is that there were hard times for Grant yet he never lost sight of what he wanted to achieve. Ultimately it's down to Grant."

Martyn Waghorn, Nathan Luscombe and Jack Colback were among the Sunderland Under-18 team that brushed aside Newcastle last weekend 4-0 - an indication of the talent around the Cleadon training ground.

And with highly-rated fullback Michael Kay pushing for his chance to make his debut at Manchester City on Monday, McNamee's dreams of providing Keane with homegrown talent could ring true sooner than expected.

Once that has been achieved, perhaps Sunderland will not be the only beneficiaries, with England and the Football Association waiting - and hoping - in the wings.